Let’s Stop with the Labels
By: Steve Gratz
I’ve been involved with education on multiple levels for 35 years. I started teaching in 1983 as a teacher of agriculture. If you recall, in 1983, a presidential commission released the report Nation at Risk calling for significant changes to the educational system. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, we saw a steady decline in the number of students enrolling in vocational education as there was a greater emphasis placed on academics and college for all. At the time, schools considered students either in a vocational track, college prep track or general studies track. This was the first time I remember the adults showing great concern over what column we put the tally in as we “tracked” students.
As a beginning teacher, I worked hard to recruit students to enroll in our vocational agriculture program. At the time, to receive funding from the state, districts could serve only 48 to 60 students. This was to ensure that our vocational agricultural teachers had the capacity to manage their laboratories and to conduct the required number of home visitations throughout the calendar year.
When I started teaching, many of my students were “placed” into my program as guidance counselors determined that certain students were not college bound. I invested a lot of time during my first few years of teaching to increase the rigor of my program by emphasizing the embedded academics in the competencies that were part of my course of study. I did this as I had to change the perception of the program so ALL students were welcome, including those planning to attend college.
Paralleling this work was a movement across the country called AgriScience. With support from the agricultural industry, AgriScience became the rage as it demonstrated how schools could teach and reinforce academic content through technical education. My good friend, Brad Moffitt, and I were both AgriScience Teachers of the Year in the mid-1980s because of our early adoption of the initiative. I remember students earned science credit because of the embedded science standards throughout the program. Brad and I quickly tried to separate ourselves from traditional vocational agriculture programs by capitalizing on the ground swell of support for AgriScience. Looking back, I was adding yet another column in which to place the student tally. I fought hard to separate our program from traditional programs as I perceived we were different.
This wasn’t the first-time education experienced the merging of academic and technical education. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, which in turn led to our first STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) crisis. Sputnik triggered a federal response, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), since many said that our public schools and colleges were doing an inadequate job teaching math and science.
"This Act, which is an emergency undertaking to be terminated after four years, will in that time do much to strengthen our American system of education so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by considerations of basic national security…Much remains to be done to bring American education to levels consistent with the needs of our society. The federal government having done its share, the people of the country, working through their local and State governments and through private agencies, must now redouble their efforts toward this end." -Dwight D. Eisenhower
Education and educators continue to fight over which column to record the student tally. Today many of those columns are labeled with CTE, STEM, STEAM, Career Pathways, etc. and schools play the tally game with programs like High Schools That Work, FutureReady, etc. Again, I share this because I believe those of us in education spend too much time concerning ourselves with which column we place the tally. At times it seems we argue amongst ourselves which column (read initiative) is best for schools and students.
In education, we have numerous initiatives in motion at any one time. We can integrate some of these programs into current educational practices while layering others on top of current work. I think it is great that schools have options and that school leaders can choose the best options based upon the wishes of their community, but we need to coordinate.
Because of my education at Apollo Career Center, I was a trained as a certified mechanic. I built quite the inventory of tools to ensure I had the correct tool for the job. When I began a new repair, I rarely used the same set of tools as the previous one because each was unique and required a personalized approach. The same holds true for education. All educators need a toolbox that they can use to help personalize the education for ALL students. That might mean mixing up the tools and combining curriculum from various tracks. We need to limit our desire to narrowly label an initiative as appropriate for one track or another, because we need to personalize education for each student. Too much effort is spent on getting the tally in the right column. We need to redirect that effort into blurring the lines and doing what’s best for ALL students.